Friday 21 January 2011

Natural Beauty

How your attitude to personal grooming betrays your place in the class layer cake.

When lower middle-class Jen Teale talks about “personal grooming being so important” and “first impressions counting” she means being clean and deodorized, with brushed hair and clean, “pressed” clothes. She smoothes the back of her skirt before she sits down because her job requires a neat, trim appearance. Samantha Upward thinks this the equivalent of crooking your little finger when you drink a cup of tea.

Jen "presses" her T shirts and throws them out when they go limp. She does her own and Bryan’s “valeting”. Caro and Harry get their clothes professionally looked after. Caro “irons” clothes, Sam doesn’t bother and Jen thinks she’s terribly “scruffy”.

Grooming is something Caro and the Nouveau Richards do to horses. To Sharon Definitely, it means removing ALL body hair (ouch!).

Jen’s hairstyle is a tamer version of the current fashion. Sharon’s hair is a stiffer and more artificial variant requiring much fiddling about, curling, straightening and visits to the salon. In the 60s it was a huge platinum beehive; more recently, the Rachel cut.

Mrs Definitely has a bullet head and very thick hair pulled back in a tight pony tail (Hackney facelift). She never goes to a hair salon (Sam calls it “the hairdresser”) so she can save the money for fags. That means that she is the only woman you ever see with glorious red hair, as everyone else dyes (“colours”) or streaks (“highlights”) theirs. Even Sam may be persuaded to have “caramel lowlights”.

In the 80s Sam really enjoyed being high-minded about chemical dyes poisoning the fish, and only used white loopaper. Henna, being a vegetable dye, was supposed to be kind to your hair, but it made hers go terribly out of condition. (It’s probably the same chemical in a different packet.) It used to be beyond the pale to bleach your hair, but now everybody does it – in a “natural” way that’s meant to look as if it was bleached by the sun.

In Sam’s young day if you had mousy hair and ordinary features you were told that personality was more important and all you had to do was be nice, nice, nice. It didn’t work. Now the same girl would get her hair streaked and get a St. Tropez tan and look indistinguishable from any other celeb.

The Definitely boys have cropped heads, or gelled spiky hair. Bohemian Upwards cut kids' hair themselves and make a complete mess of it. (They can’t have their children’s hair cut professionally because a) bang would go sixpence and b) it’s common for children to have hairstyles.)

The Upwards only have one pair of scissors in the house which are ten years old and used for everything. When Sam finds the scissors (she never begrudges the time spent looking for things she won’t put away in the same place twice), she pulls the child’s fringe out horizontally and hacks off the end and then wonders why it doesn’t hang straight.

Jen gets her kids’ hair cut by a professional and WATCHES HOW THEY DO IT so that she can then do it properly at home. She may even watch a tutorial on YouTube. Sam doesn’t know how to learn a skill, only how to write essays and pass exams. And she can’t be told anything because she’s from the boss class.

Arkana Nightshade rinses her hair with plain water because it will clean itself. She smells faintly of sheep. Caro Stow-Crat gets her eyelashes and eyebrows dyed. Her mousy hair is given discreet blonde streaks and brushed off her forehead (fringes give you spots). It's layered and she gets it cut when it reaches her collar. She brushes it with a Mason Pearson brush. She remembers some lore about brushing it a hundred times a day but reckons this only applied pre First World War when you grew your hair long enough to sit on.

She doesn’t use foundation, it’s “bad for the skin”. (Or does it protect the skin against the weather?) Fortunately her "complexion" is very good.

Hair devices are Teale: heated styling wands, ceramic straighteners, crimpers, Carmen rollers (the names are a giveaway). As is calling a hair product a “hair product” or just “product”. As is buying a product to rejuvenate your hair after you’ve used a lot of products on it.

The Bohemian Upwards who live in Stoke Newington used to cultivate a prison pallor because tanning gives you skin cancer/is a capitalist plot and basically it’s terribly, terribly common. People who live in Knightsbridge - and footballers' wives - get an expensive St. Tropez tan, Ilfordians go orange whatever technique they use (sunbed, spray). Sam wouldn’t cross the threshold of anything that called itself a “tanning salon” but might try some ancient recipe like soaking teabags in her bath or applying French dressing before sunbathing.

Upwards had a terrible time in the politically correct 80s because they couldn’t remove any body hair and had to wear long sleeves and skirts. But even before the 80s, Upwards were quite Presbyterian about any form of body modification and improving the face God gave you. They superstitiously claimed that if you removed one hair, two would grow in its place. Grooming knowledge was something they kept from their children, like the facts of life.

When Upwards wore makeup in the 60s and 70s they were heavy handed and slathered on aqua eyeshadow, brown eyebrow pencil and orange foundation that stopped at the jawline and clashed with their pink lipstick. They really did look much better without it.

Upwards will have an aromatherapy massage because it makes you a better person, but won’t have their legs waxed because it just makes you look good. They're uninterested in the superficial – and unable to address problems directly. If they have a problem they don’t solve it, they solve a different problem instead. Probably one they haven’t got.

Many men secretly wax between their eyebrows, but they overdo it and end up with a surprised expression. Mr Definitely dyes his hair a glowing chestnut with purple glints. Howard Weybridge and Mr Definitely clung to Brylcreem long after it had gone out. Howard still attempts a comb-over.

Everyone is much cleaner now, thanks to all those “toiletries”. In the 40s, women were urged to make “Friday night Amami night”, ie they only washed their hair once a week. Though the Guardian asked on Nov 2 2010: “Could you give up washing? A growing number of people are cutting down on daily showering and hair-washing. So could you join the extreme soap-dodgers?” Apparently some Upwards are washing less in an attempt to a) save the planet and b) solve the financial crisis. There was always an Upward trend against washing too much, or using deodorant (unnatural). During lockdown, the broadsheets ran articles on how people weren't bothering to wash since they didn't have to go out and meet people.

The Nouveau Richards soak in foam in their purpose built wet room. Jen keeps her toothbrush in a plastic “beaker”, Sam in a “toothmug”. Teales “take” a lot of showers, Upwards “have” (fewer) baths. Stow Crats use Pears and Imperial Leather soap because they haven’t changed for decades. They have an individual scent made up for them at Floris.

Upward toiletries never foam very much because they’re made of olive oil and seaweed, though Sam and her ilk have become much less hard-line – like many revolutionaries when they realise that the crowds aren’t following them.

Harry Stow-Crat’s grandparents had washbasins plumbed into the bedrooms at Stow-Crat Hall because bedrooms were where you did your washing, in a basin filled with water by a servant with a can. Caro is gradually putting in more bathrooms (what Jen and Eileen call an "en-suite"), and phasing out the washbasins. Sam calls it a basin, Jen a wash-hand basin, Eileen a washbasin and Sharon a sink.

Upwards are obsessed with straightening and pulling in their children’s teeth so they can never have a sexy overbite and end up with small, pinched, repressed mouths. (Elinor Glyn, the 20s sex appeal pundit, advised having your front teeth reset to stick out more.) But Upwards despise people who have their teeth whitened, or veneered. Grand people can get away with having terrible teeth. Upwards also quietly get their children's ears pinned back, and their noses straightened. They are vicious about people getting Botox and Sam claims not to know what a Brazilian wax is. Sharon gets a French manicure at her friend’s nail bar, and a set of stick-on French manicured toenails.

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